Real Demos MusicNet, Legal Downloads

Last week's Streaming Media West conference in Long Beach, California, was host to many exciting new technologies, including the upcoming music subscription service from MusicNet.

MusicNet was formed as a joint venture between RealNetworks, EMI, Bertelsmann, and AOL Time Warner, to offer legal downloads of music to subscribers. Real controls the largest stake at 40% according to company representatives, and Real CEO Rob Glaser holds the top spot at MusicNet as well.

BetaNews was given a peek at a "near final" version of the MusicNet client, but was informed the company will not be releasing the software directly. Rather, a MusicNet SDK will be made available to partners who will create their own branded clients. Napster will use the MusicNet service for its subscription offering later this summer, hoping to finally establish a genuine revenue model.

MusicNet works on a "token" system. For each license purchased, the user is allotted tokens which can be used to "unlock" songs for listening. As it stands, unlimited songs can be downloaded, but only those which the user has tokens for can be accessed.

The interface of the client itself is very simple and similar in form to Napster. Once logged in, a tabbed interface allows a user to navigate from a portal page, to searches and already downloaded music. Songs can be streamed directly through the client or downloaded locally, depending on user preference.

Songs will be issued in RealAudio 8 format, allowing playback within the MusicNet client as well as in RealPlayer. BetaNews was told the possibility exists to add other formats, including Windows Media. But with completely separate digital rights management, Windows Media compatibility may be extremely far off.

Each MusicNet file will contain code to verify that it may be played locally or streamed. Upon playback, a central clearinghouse is contacted to confirm a license has been issued for the song. If a user does not have the necessary tokens, a notice will appear prompting for the purchase of more.

Because copyright protection is stored within the file itself, piracy is virtually impossible. If a non-subscriber tries to access a secure MusicNet file, a prompt will ask the user to pay a fee to join the service. Trading files will only contribute in advertising a company's music subscription. When asked about file size differences needed to make the format secure, RealNetworks informed BetaNews the addition "is negligible."

Listening to a song in RealPlayer is also allowed if the MusicNet client is running and logged in. RealPlayer uses MusicNet to confirm a license has been granted before playing it, a feature RealNetworks worked "very hard" to add.

Interestingly enough, MusicNet will have support for peer-to-peer file sharing - but only for licensed songs. We were told this feature is intended to speed up downloading by providing alternate locations, similar to the service offered by PeerGenius. When not using P2P, the client will download music from a "supernode" setup by each MusicNet licensee.

The MusicNet technology is expected to debut in the late summer through partners AOL Time Warner, Napster, and RealNetworks. While the industry has been demanding a legal alternative to current file swapping software, it is not clear how the added restrictions will be received by consumers. But RealNetworks is not the only one who foresees a future in music subscriptions; Sony Music and Vivendi Universal have already established a MusicNet competitor dubbed PressPlay.

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